Published June 1, 2009. From Cook's Country.
A sweet discovery helped us see which baked beans are best.
Since they are so mild, white beans are often cooked with plenty of salt, sugar, and pork—the alchemy that makes baked beans so popular. And while baked beans are a staple of backyard gatherings, few of us bother to make them from scratch. Canned baked beans deliver convenience, especially in the heat of summer. But are they any good?
We gathered cans from industry leaders and three vegetarian-style brands. We rounded out our lineup with an outlier: a pork and bean product that isn’t technically baked beans but was deemed close enough (through pre-tasting). All the beans were heated in saucepans and sampled plain by our panel of 22 tasters. Our preferences quickly fell into line: We liked sweet, slightly firm beans.
Surprisingly, a meatless product came out on top, just ahead of two well-known brands. Tasters rated these three brands the sweetest, and a check of the ingredient list confirmed that they did indeed contain the most sugars. The top three brands were also judged to have the best texture, which makes sense when you consider that sugar slows the softening process (our tasters liked beans with a little bite).
More important, the type of sweetener had a big impact on flavor. Our top four brands all contain molasses, a classic baked bean seasoning that adds complexity and depth. Our three least-favorite brands rely on high fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice and maple syrup, and sorghum (respectively) instead. Finally, the three lowest-ranked brands contain tomato puree, which made the beans taste inappropriately “ketchup-y”; the recommended brands are not made with any tomato product.